Mission Civilisatrice and “Muslim Rage” in the Motherland

Furor in France

As Muslims around the world protest their contemptuous treatment by the West, catalyzed by the provocative, racist American film Innocence of Muslims, the French media added fuel to the fire of by publishing offensive cartoons of the prophet Muhammad. Left-wing alt-weekly Charlie Hebdo ran cartoons that depicted a naked, turbaned Muhammad in profoundly racist and offensive ways. To make matters worse, French interior minister Manuel Valls announced that demonstrations against Islamophobia would be officially banned and that “any incitement to hatred must be fought with the greatest firmness.”

In Paris, 150 protestors (out of 250) were arrested after a peaceful protest at the US embassy—and on Friday, protest permits were withheld as Valls warned that police would be on alert to break up any unauthorized protests by force.

The French government denounced the cartoons as “irresponsible,” and European Affairs Minister Bernard Cazeneuve lectured that “when you are free, in a country like ours, you always have to measure the impact of your words.”

In practice, though, it appears that “measuring one’s words” applies more to Kate Middleton’s topless photos than to racist bigotry. A French judge issued an injunction against further publication of the Middleton photos in the interest of decency, while no such consideration was given to the decency of publishing openly racist imagery. Such blatantly disparate choices in the same week expose a colonial mindset: while royalty should be treated as, for the lack of a better word, royalty, ex–colonial subjects (most French Muslims are from former French colonies) may be denigrated with impunity and their right to protest and exercise free speech may be curtailed.

French Muslims have had much to protest; the cartoons are only the tip of the iceberg. They are treated as second-class citizens in a variety of ways, and in recent years angry protests by French Muslims and their left-wing allies have demanded decent living conditions in the working-class banlieuesvas well as labor rights for undocumented workers. Recently demonstrations in Gennevilliersvraised the injustice of the firing of four Muslim workers for fasting during the holy month of Ramadan.

What is particularly insidious is that behind the much-vaunted French tradition of liberté, égalité, fraternité, a colonial mentality can masquerade as progressiveness.  Full-face coverings such as the burqa and the niqab were banned from the public streets in 2011. This follows upon the nearly decade-long ban in public schools of religious coverings, particularly the hijab.  Both these acts were justified on the grounds that they “promote secularism” and “protect” Muslim women from oppression; violators are fined or forced to attend classes on “French citizenship.”

A full two centuries after Napoleon invaded Egypt and promised to bring liberty to its people, his mission civilisatrice (civilizing mission) remains alive and well.  Ironically, though, Napoleon actually proffered greater respect for Islam—even going so far as to claim that the French were “Muslims” in his widely circulated manifesto—than his descendants today. (([i] See the discussion in Deepa Kumar’s Islamophobia and the Politics of Empire, p. 27.))

The French have a long and proud tradition of massive street protests, but it would appear that this tradition is reserved for the “right” kind of people.  A poll by the survey group TNS found that 58 percent of French respondents thought that freedom of speech was a “fundamental right,” yet 71 percent supported the ban on Muslim protest.

The propaganda that is responsible for winning this sort of consent is rooted in a long history of presenting Muslims as an “other” who must be brought into the fold and taught the “right”—or French—way to live.

Such attitudes are widespread among imperial nations. The US magazine Newsweek ran a cover photo of bearded, angry Muslim men with the headline “Muslim Rage.”  Picking up the baton from Bernard Lewis, whose 1990 essay “The Roots of Muslim Rage” introduced the world to the term “clash of civilizations,” former Dutch parliament member and rabid Islamophobe Ayaan Hirsi Ali wrote that furious, violent rage is “the defining characteristic of Islam.”

If we allow them to protest, the logic goes, there will be no stopping the flood of Muslim rage.  And so, rather than extending the courtesies of the famed French freedom of speech to its Arab and Muslim citizens, the “socialist” François Hollande administration has responded by banning their voices entirely from the public debate. Charlie Hebdo, whose Paris offices are under police protection, sold out of its Muhammad issue last Wednesday.

Such racist hypocrisy is not new to the French left.  For instance, the French Communist Party did not support the Algerian struggle for national liberation.  Jean-Paul Sartre, in his preface to Frantz Fanon’s The Wretched of the Earth, blasted his compatriots: “You who are so liberal, so humane, who take the love of culture to the point of affectation, you pretend to forget that you have colonies where massacres are committed in your name.”

Today, while the sun has long set on the French empire, its colonial mindset and ideology persist.

It should come as no surprise, then, that when one group of people is targeted as France’s “other,” the floodgates open wide to other forms of racism. Charlie Hebdo’s racist cartoons not only depict the Prophet in profoundly offensive ways, but also include anti-Semitic caricatures of Jewish rabbis. And when the hijab was banned in French schools, so were Jewish students’ yarmulkes.

National Front fascist Marine Le Pen, who won nearly 18 percent of the vote in the first round of presidential elections earlier this year, called publicly this week for a ban on yarmulkes on the public streets, stating that it was an “obvious” logical extension of the ban on Muslim veils.

The mixing of anti-Jewish with anti-Muslim sentiment, illustrated so viscerally in the disgusting Charlie Hebdo cartoons, dates back at least to the first Crusade in 1099, when Muslims and Jews alike were swept out of Jerusalem and murdered in the first pogroms. The crusaders even stopped in Germany on their way east to murder Jews there.  During the Reconquista of Moorish Spain, too, Jews who had been living peacefully side by side with Muslims were driven out and murdered by Christians.  (Many fled to safety in the Muslim Ottoman Empire.)  Islamophobia and anti-Semitism have coexisted for at least a millennium.

Throughout history, when one ethnic group has been targeted as evil, dangerous, or threatening, such treatment has opened the door to the oppression of other minorities and this has been especially true of Jews and Muslims in Europe.

In the twenty-first century, we have seen a wave of struggles explode across the Middle East and North Africa that have inspired people in the US, Spain, Greece, and elsewhere. This time, the Western left has to get it right—we have to learn the lessons of the past and eschew ethnocentrism in the interest of true international solidarity. If liberté, égalité, fraternité are to mean anything, they must apply equally to everyone—not least of all to our Muslim brothers and sisters.

Deepa Kumar is an Associate Professor of media studies and Middle Eastern Studies at Rutgers University. She is the author of the recently release book Islamophobia and the Politics of Empire. Sarah Grey is a freelance writer, book editor, and indexer at Grey Editing in Philadelphia. Her 101 Changemakers: Rebels and Radicals Who Changed US History is forthcoming from Haymarket Books. Read other articles by Deepa Kumar and Sarah Grey.